The Mother of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song

Published below is the text of a talk I will give tomorrow to commemorate the Armistice centenary as part of a series of events entitled “FTCC Remembers World War I: 1914-1918.”

“Death is the mother of beauty,” wrote Wallace Stevens, one of the few poets of the Lost Generation who did not actually serve in World War I. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” wrote John Keats 100 years earlier. These twin ideas are a premise—and a promise—I have had ample opportunities to test over the last three years in my preparations for this very moment. And now we gathered here in this auditorium have another such opportunity: This bugle, so hauntingly played by FTCC student Mynia Hughes, served in the trenches of World War I. Its dents—the scars of battle—cause it to be slightly and poignantly out of tune. Yes, the plaintive notes of “Taps” on that bugle are beautiful to me. So are the poppies whose red splendor inspired Major John McCrae to write the famous “In Flanders Fields” a mere thousand days before he died of pneumonia and meningitis while serving at a Canadian field hospital in France. The poor soil of Flanders was richly fertilized by the nitrogen from explosives, the lime from demolished buildings, and the blood and bones of soldiers who gave their lives there, creating a blanket of scarlet over no-man’s land. 

When I had to memorize that poem in the third grade, “In Flanders Fields” became the first World War I poem to enter my life. Two years later, I even wrote a play about a fictional casualty of that war for my fifth-grade class to perform for Veterans’ Day, and at the end we all recited the poem we had memorized. That was in 1963, only the 45th anniversary of the Armistice whose centennial we have now gathered to commemorate. The horrors of that war neither ended all wars nor made the world safe for democracy, but they did provide fertile ground for the rich legacy of poems, novels, paintings, sculpture, and music whose beauty, like the poppies, came from the gas attacks, the mutilated bodies, the shell-shocked minds, and the 17 million deaths we remember today.

When this project began to germinate more than three years ago, I intended to focus my energies on the long shadow of that war as seen in the cataclysmic changes in Western civilization that followed—the Lost Generation, the Roaring Twenties, the death of God, the ascent of Einstein, “The Wasteland,” and Dr. T. J. Eckelberg: in short, the rise of Modernism. But that story has been told many times already, by such revered cultural historians as Paul Fussell and Modris Eksteins, and I have listed the classics of that genre on the bibliography I have prepared for you.

The story I wish to tell instead is of my own journey across the Western Front, through the trenches and over the top to no-man’s land; my guides on that journey were the works of literary and visual art I will share with you today. They have provided me with an indelible lesson, the same lesson I attempt to convey every semester to the students in my cross-disciplinary course in Freshman composition: That what the humanities can teach us about the world around us is every bit as important—and possibly even more profound and more necessary to our lives—than what we can learn from the natural or the social sciences. The key ingredient is their shared focus on beauty and its companion, truth.

Words and facts
I’ll start with pure serendipity. As the months and years went by, I realized that my immersion in novels of World War I was slowly increasing both my vocabulary and my stash of trivia.  I learned that a gobstopper is a jawbreaker when a character in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy picked up the eye of a fallen comrade-in-arms and asked, “What shall I do with this gobstopper?”—and then collapsed mentally and became mute. I learned that when the weather was right, the shelling on the Western Front could be heard across the channel, and the explosions of mines during the Battle of the Somme were actually heard in London. I learned about Maconochie’s stew, a thin soup of corned beef, turnips, carrots, and lots of fat that congealed when cold—and who had hot meals in the trenches? I learned about the canary girls or munitionettes whose skin—and that of their offspring—turned yellow because of the nitrogen in the TNT they handled in the munitions factories. I learned about the French estaminets where the troops relaxed with adult beverages—AND that they received as part of their daily rations a supply of tobacco, along with rum, wine, or beer, depending on their country of origin. I learned about the Wipers Times, a magazine full of trench humor published at the front and named after the tommies’ preferred pronunciation of the Belgian city of Ypres, where over one million casualties occurred in the course of five lengthy and brutal battles.

Common soldiers
And I learned much about the “Other Ranks,” the British term for those who are not officers. In fact, some of my earliest impressions from the war novels came directly from those common soldiers—the tommies, the poilus, the boche, and the doughboys—who wrote the first novels to come out of the conflict.  That these young men—British, French, and German—all told the same story became for me a lasting lesson about the nature of war for those who fight it. From them all, we learn of the war fever that swept across Europe in 1914, ending the most beautiful summer in memory. In the words of French novelist Gabriel Chevallier:

They told the Germans: “Forward to a bright and joyous war! On to Paris! God is with us, for a greater Germany!”: And the good, peaceful Germans, who take everything seriously, set forth to conquer, transforming themselves into savage beasts.

They told the French: “The nation is under attack. We will fight for Justice and Retribution. On to Berlin!” And the pacifist French who take nothing at all seriously, interrupted their modest little rentier reveries to go and fight.

So it was with the Austrians, the Belgians, the English, the Russians, the Turks, and then the Italians. In a single week, twenty million men, busy with their lives and loves, with making money and planning a future, received the order to stop everything to go and kill other men. And [they] obeyed the order because they had been convinced this was their duty.

On a more individual level, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the German schoolmaster Kantorek convinces his entire class of 18-year-old boys to enlist with his hymns to the Fatherland. Later, the remaining few in their company, men now and with stomachs full for once, discuss why wars occur at all. To the suggestion that one country offends another, the clowning Tjaden asks, “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France. . . . [Then] I haven’t any business here at all. I don’t feel myself offended.” Their repartee continues: “I think it is more of a kind of fever. No one in particular wants it, and then all at once, there it is. . . . It’s queer, when one thinks about it. . . . We’re here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now, who’s in the right?”

In Fear: A Novel of World War I, Chevallier bemoans the tedium of life in the trenches, and in Wooden Crosses, Roland Dorgelès describes that dull numbness felt by those killing and dying for purposes they did not understand: “It was a disillusion for him, this first glimpse of the war. He would fain have been deeply moved, have experienced something, and he kept his eyes stubbornly fixed in the direction of the trenches, to give himself emotion, to win a little thrill. . . . But . . . he felt nothing at all.”

These motley authors also discover the same bond between common soldiers, no matter what their language, as in Her Privates We by Frederic Manning: “They had been three people without a single thing in common; and yet there was no bond stronger than that necessity which had bound them together” But these common soldiers also recognize their kinship with those they call enemy. In the words of Paul Bäumer as he ponders the fate of French prisoners: “A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends.” This lesson Paul experiences firsthand when he must spend hours in a .-hole with a French soldier he killed:

I speak to him and say to him: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up–take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.

Notably, Remarque devotes 12 pages of his novel to this one-sided encounter.

A final but significant similarity among these novels of the soldiers in the trenches lies in their similar view of the war as  members of “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war” (preface). They know that they will never belong anywhere again, as Paul Bäumer muses, “If we go back we will be weary, burnt out, rootless, and without hope. . . . [M]en will not understand us, and in the end we shall fall into ruin.”

Of course, a different perspective, possibly even more tragic in its own way, comes from the vantage point of officers, and there is no better example of that viewpoint than Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy. Although the war is not Ford’s sole nor even major focus, it is the shadow looming over all the events in the four novels. Christopher Tietjens, the self-styled “last Tory,” mourns the abrupt end of the eternal Edwardian summer as war looms on the horizon; he knows that his way of life will crumble forever in the wake of social and political changes beyond his control and that there will be “no more parades” when the war has upended not only British society, but the world. Nevertheless, having suffered shell shock and lost his memory early in the war, Captain Tietjens returns to the front, where he is respected in the ranks because of his kind and fair treatment of his men:

Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-brownness of winter . . . exactly as if they were nuts willfully picked up and flung over the shoulder by magpies. . . . But men. Not just populations. Men you worried over there. Each one a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a green-grocer’s business, a milk walk, a paper stall, a slut of a wife.

Given a choice between court-martial or the trenches—due only to the machinations of his deceitful wife and the official dilemmas faced by his godfather, General Campion—Tietjens makes the only choice his honor would allow him—the trenches. And there, under fire during the German Spring Offensive of 1918, he begins to change, and by the war’s end he realizes, “Today the world changed. Feudalism was finished; its last vestiges were gone. It held no place for him. He was going—he was damn well going—to make a place in it.”

Life—and death—in the trenches
So far, I have spoken mostly about the men themselves who give flesh and bone to these novels of war. But of course, they have much more to offer than character analysis. I suspect that the first image in your head when you think of World War I is the trenches on the Western Front. I had the unique privilege to see some first-hand images of life in these trenches last weekend when I visited an exhibit entitled “Soldier Artists” a the Smithsonian. There, I saw photos of an underground world of carvings made by soldiers from England, France, the United States, and Germany billeted at various times in the caverns of a limestone quarry. The playfulness, the patriotism, the fear, and the sorrow of these young men provided me with a time of profound contemplation of the resilient human spirit capable of such creations of beauty in an underground sanctuary, above which roared and whistled the weapons of war. Perhaps the most poignant was an elaborate altar carved into the wall by French soldiers. To the right, next to a stairway leading to the open air, was a font of holy water so the poilus could cross their foreheads before ascending—maybe for the last time—to the front.

Life in the trenches achieves gruesome clarity in the hands of skilled writers such as Sebastian Faulks, who based the fictional Birdsong not on dry historical tomes, but on the letters, diaries, and field reports of the men and boys who served. By doing so, he achieves a level of realism that helped, finally to grasp the experience that was the war of attrition in the trenches—and tunnels—of the Western Front. I even titled a post of my blog “Reading, Watching—and Smelling—World War I”; Faulks supplied the smells. He also supplied the lice, enough to make the skin crawl:

The evident advantage of cutting back the numbers [of lice] was the temporary relief it gave from the sour, stale smell the creatures left, though even this relief was qualified since the odour was usually compounded or overwhelmed by stronger and more persistent bodily smells.

The eggs of hundreds of lice [lay] dormant in the seams of his shirt. By the time he reached the Front his skin was alive with them.

And here, Faulks reveals the stench of war in passages noxious even in the reading:

Within half a mile [the communication trench] had become no more than a zigzagged cesspool, thigh-deep in sucking mud that was diluted by the excreta of the overrun latrines and thickened by the decomposing bodies that each new collapse of trench wall revealed in the earth beneath.

The men they were relieving passed out thigh-high rubber boots that had been in continuous service for eight months. The decayed pulp of the interior was a mash of whale oil and putrid rags that could accommodate feet of almost any size.

The smell [in the tunnels] was hard to breathe, but it was no better aboveground, where the chloride of lime seemed not to relieve, but to compound the atmosphere of putrefying flesh, where the latrine saps had been buried or abandoned, and where, to avoid the smell of feces, men chose to inhale the toxic smoke of braziers.

Perhaps most revealing–and revolting–however, are Faulks’s stark descriptions of the wounds suffered by the soldiers, compounded by the limited medical care available. These are not thrilling battle scenes that inspire the bloodthirsty; rather, they are almost unbearable scenes of human carnage as witnessed by the protagonist, Stephen Wraysford.

There was a man beside him missing part of his face, but walking in the same dreamlike state, his rifle pressing forward. His nose dangled, and Stephen could see his teeth through the missing cheek.

He recalled individual limbs, severed from their bodies, and the shape of particular wounds; he could picture the sudden intimacy of revealed internal organs, but he could not always say to whom the flesh belonged.

He had seen he destructive powers demonstrated on map and on prepared ranges; he had drawn diagrams of the conical delivery of shrapnel and compacted blast of mortar. What he had not seen until the week before was the explosive effect on soft tissue, on the pink skin of two privates in his platoon who had been gathered up in a single sandbag by one of the others.

If these trenches so compellingly painted by Faulks are your most familiar impression of World war I, I suspect that images of men—and horses and children—in gas masks are not far behind. Germany first used chlorine gas at Ypres in April of 1915, and soon, all major combatants had deployed their own chemical weapons. The most riveting fictional depiction of a gas attack I have read comes from a recent novel by Sebastian Barry entitled A Long, Long Way:

The yellow cloud was first noticed by Christy Moran because he was standing on the fire-step . . . looking out across the quiet battlefield. . . . What was remarkable was the strange yellow-tinged cloud that had just appeared from nowhere like a sea-fog, but not like a fog really; he knew what a flaming fog looked like, for God’s sake. . . . The grass died in the path of the cloud. [It] didn’t look too deep but it was as wide as the eye could see. Christy Moran was absolutely certain he could see figures moving in the yellow smoke. It must be come sort of way of hiding the advancing men, he was thinking, some new-fashioned piece of warfare. . . . All the Irish were on the fire-step now, all along the length of the trench, some fifteen hundred men showing their faces to this unknown freak of weather, or whatever it might be. . . . It was beautiful in a way, the yellow seemed to boil about, and sink into whatever craters it was offered, and then rise again with the march of the main body of smoke. There were still birds singing behind them, but whatever birds had been singing in front of them were silent now. . . . The big snake of turning yellow reached the Algerian stretch of the trench. . . Horrible laments rose from the affronted Algerians. Now they were climbing up the parados and seemed to be fleeing back towards the rear. . . . [T]hose poor men of Algiers . . . [were] tearing off their uniforms and writhing on the ground. And howling; howling was the word for it. . . . Now the men were possessed of an utter fear of this dark and seemingly infernal thing creeping along, seeming to make the grass fizz and silencing birds and turning men into howling demons.

John Singer Sargent, too, taught me about the terrors of mustard gas in his famous painting “Gassed.”

But I learned the most about the horrors of gas from Wilfred Owen, the poet to whom, if anyone, I give the credit for my passion for this Great War whose end we are commemorating this week:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Notably, this is the same lie Professor Kantorek told to Paul and his classmates in All Quiet on the Western Front: Sweet and fitting it is to die for your country.

Shell shocked
Owen’s allusion in the previous poem to “smothering dreams” brings to mind my final vision of World War I in the demented faces of the shell-shocked soldiers. Much of Pat Barker’s Regeneration is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital, where W. H. R. Rivers, eschewing the harsher methods of fellow doctors—shaming, solitary confinement, and electric shocks—treated victims of what he called war neuroses with a compassionate blend of talk therapy and hypnosis to recover repressed trauma.  Nor does Barker shy away from presenting graphic details of the memories repressed:

Rivers had become adept at finding bearable aspects to unbearable experiences, but Burns defeated him. What had happened to him was so vile, so disgusting, that Rivers could find no redeeming feature. He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of the shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled body had ruptured on impact. Before Burns lost consciousness. He’d had time to realize that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh. Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred. (19)

Once again, though, perhaps the best images come from poetry—from Robert Graves, from Siegfried Sassoon, and most powerfully from Wilfred Owen himself, in “Mental Cases”:

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,—but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

—These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
—Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
—Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

The Armistice
Bitterness and resentment reached even to the fringes of the frenetic worldwide celebrations of the Armistice of November 11, 1918. Robert Graves, for example, wrote of the “thoughtless and ignorant scum, who hang out the bunting when war is let loose and for victory bang on a drum.” He even responded to Sassoon’s poetic suggestion that “suddenly everyone burst out singing” with this terse reply: “‘Everyone’ does not include me.”

Whatever their losses and however bitter the wine they drank, most shared the jubilation and the tears of Sassoon’s crowds of singing people. This, for example, is from the end of Chevallier’s Fear, when the sudden shock of the Armistice brings both:

Eleven o’clock. Total silence. Total astonishment. And then a murmur from the valley, answered by another from the front. A great outburst of shouting, echoing through the naves of the forest. It seemed that the whole earth was exhaling one long sigh. And that an enormous weight was falling from our shoulders.

It is a moment that brings back 1914. Life rises up again like the dawn. The future opens before us like a magnificent avenue. But . . . a bitter taste mars our joy, and out youth has greatly aged. . . . You men from the land[s] of Balzac and Goethe, whether they were taken from universities, workshops or the fields. Were provided with daggers, revolvers and bayonets, and were pitched against each other, to butcher and maim in the name of an ideal which we were promised would be used wisely and well by those at the rear. At twenty we were on the bleak battlefield of modern warfare, a factory for the mass production of corpses.

Peace comes suddenly—like a burst of gunfire. Like a stroke of good fortune for a poor, exhausted man. Peace: a bed, meals, quiet nights, plans that we have still not had the time to form. Peace: this silence that has fallen over the lines, and fills the sky, and spreads across the whole earth, the great silence of a funeral.

“It feels really funny, doesn’t it?” says a soldier passing by.

Before I close, I strongly encourage you to support the FTCC Music Department and stay for the brief concert to follow, which will open with a haunting musical setting of the jubilant but meditative poem by Siegfried Sassoon I just mentioned.

And now I leave you with the thoroughly jubilant image of “Armistice Night 1918” by American painter George Luks.


This entry was posted in art, history, literature, music, poetry, World War I and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Mother of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song

  1. Melva Magee says:

    How horrible is war!

  2. Boz says:

    World War I was, of course, especially horrific–as were (and are) many of its legacies.

  3. Pingback: Fruition: 2018 | Just(e) Words

Leave a Reply